I attended the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner in Washington DC on September 10, 2016. This post was inspired by Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine’s remarks. HRC is the largest civil rights organization focused on ensuring basic rights for LGBTQ individuals.
When did you learn about injustice? How did you decide your position on a controversial issue? Senator Kaine spoke about how he was introduced to the injustice facing the LGBT community during his time as a student at Mizzou. His remarks brought me back to my residence hall during my junior year of college.
I was a resident advisor for two years at Ohio State. My second year, I had a co-RA who managed the boys’ side of the hall. Tony is a brilliant guy and came out to me as gay during our first quarter together. Later that quarter, we had our weekly staff meeting and the mandatory discussion topic was LGBT awareness. Our hall director read through a hypothetical situation about a fictional student who was struggling with his sexual orientation. The entire time he was reading this made-up scenario, I was thinking of Tony. Tony was raised in a small town and finally had the courage to come out during his time in college. In an uncharacteristic way, I interrupted my hall director and said, “wouldn’t this be more meaningful if we could ask Tony how he feels?”
Tony looked at me with wide eyes. I assumed he was out to the rest of the staff, but apparently I was still part of his inner circle. I don’t remember the specifics from there, except that I cried for Tony that night in front of my staff members. I cried for someone who didn’t feel like he could be his true self in front of us. I cried that we felt it more important as a staff to work through fictional scenarios than to hear directly from someone who was living this as his truth. I cried out of anger. I cried out of frustration.
That moment served as an important lesson for me in how I take a stand on issues. If I cannot put myself in someone’s shoes, then I do not deserve to take a stand on an issue that affects them. It’s very easy to say you are pro-this and anti-that. But once you put a name, face and story with someone who holds opposing views, you might have a change of heart.
Dialogue around LGBT issues was not part of my small town upbringing. Going to a large university and subsequently moving to the San Francisco Bay Area provided me with the awareness and education that I am grateful to have today. I have been fortunate to work with the Human Rights Campaign for the past six years. During this time we’ve seen Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repealed and marriage equality affirmed. But this is also the same period of time that has brought the Orlando shootings and North Carolina’s HB2. Education and understanding are so incredibly necessary right now. If you think there are no LGBT individuals in your neighborhood or at your place of employment, it’s likely because the individuals are not comfortable sharing this about themselves. Even now, there are people like Tony who are open with a close circle, but don’t feel like they can do that with a broader community.
Small Town Leadership Lesson: This is an extension of the golden rule. Take a moment to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Everyone has a story that deserves to be heard. By opening ourselves to the stories of others we open our minds to broader ways of thinking. If we could all take a minute to care about what the person next to us is going through, then we probably wouldn’t be so divided as a society.